“Quit it, dummy,” she said. “We have to get through it.”
Suddenly the screen leaped to life; the air filled with crackling ozone.
I covered Lucy’s eyes. On screen was Evelyn Chambers, a woman I’d known years before, sitting on a bed without clothes on, staring out at us. Greenish purple bruises covered her body. Her lips formed the words:
“This is what you wanted to do to me, isn’t it, Carl. But you weren’t man enough for it. Now I have someone who can do it to me all the time . . .”
“La la la la,” hummed Lucy to herself.
“Good girl,” I whispered to Lucy. I looked back at the pained eyes of Evelyn.
“I thought you killed yourself, Evelyn, isn’t that what you were always threatening to do?” I said.
“I’m going to,” she whispered, edging closer to the camera, her voice wheedling.
“Before you do, Evelyn, can you do me a favor?”
“Tell me where Uranus is sleeping.”
We heard a groan―like metal, or a growing earthquake, some sound in the earth of this not-Earth, crackling up from below. Lucy and I looked, wide-eyed, and so did Evelyn, peering through the screen.
Though I am alive, I have been dead. What purpose does my knowledge serve, the fact that I’ve returned from beyond that veil? Is it only that I have more time now, more than I ever imagined possible?
Though food tasted better for a while, the nature of the body is such that it returns me to my set point; it is dangerous for a mammal to remain too surprised.
We must go on, as Carl Sandberg said. His eternal question was: “What next?”
I am a nomad now, in my greatcoat. Reality is stranger than most are prepared for. And so religion is a lot like selling shoes: which one fits you, son? Let us try them on.
Nemesis and nomad are related words. The Proto-Indo-European root nem, meaning “divide, distribute, allot” applies both to land for grazing sheep, for the nomad was really just a shepherd, you see, confined to a certain area. And nem applies to that self-righteous anger of the landlord, fighting his nemesis, his neighbor.
So both words are wrong. Neither contain the meaning we need for this new Earth, the one we are now making.
I who have been places I never wanted to go have learned that the purpose of reality is, at least in part, that of repurposing: we must decide what it is we are to do with the raw dreamstuff we have inherited.
“Put your hand into her face,” hissed Lucy, and I did as she said, reaching into the screen towards poor Evelyn, who screamed soundlessly as I wrestled with her phantom inside the aether, like trying to subdue a puppet run rogue. The hot squirming air behind the living screen burned my hand but I squeezed tighter, feeling the memory of Evelyn, my last lover, burning in my hand, as the thing simulating her scorched my flesh.
The terrible groan came again, like the Red King turning in his sleep.
Blood covered my hand. Lucy licked it like a dog, her mad eyes comforting me in the terrible darkness.
“Good work Carl.”
She took out her little Derringer and pointed it at the dying screen.
“Show me Uranus’ bedroom!”
When the twilit landscape clicked into position beneath the damaged screen, Lucy said, “Give me a boost.”
I did, kneeling with my hands laced together.
“See you on the other side.”
I threw her into the screen.
Mr. Hu Dances
The rain is holy; and I run underneath the dark sun, disemboweling myself as I move under the green and red skies. Things are speeding up.
What is love? Etymologically, the sense meaning of the word conflates “praise” and “love and care.” Is love this verb that creates the other through our imagination? Do we imagine God and so make him/her/it so, and as we love and need our fellow men and women, zombies and re-born, dead and living, child and crone, we assert the necessity of the uncrossable imagination, the a priori act that makes one another true, in every moment?
Lucy is part of me, and I will never understand her. We are running through the storm, part of its logic, a fire about to start. She is so close to me.
When Chairman Mao danced for Nixon he stormed reality itself. In the timeless present of Chinese verbs there is no future and there is no past, nor even a now, in fact, but only time, something inextricably bound with our bodies, regurgitated, recapacitated, organic and vast and squishy and stretchy, a rubric with no measurement. Like love . . .
I am still just a guy from Chicago. A shoe salesman. I fall into the rabbit hole with Alice, and I am fine, I am alive, though I am dead, I am a being and I know things.
Hypnotized by the colored sky I called out Lucy’s name:
“Lucy! . . .”
And I hear her childish laughter.
I understand now The Office is within my mind. Everything I keep there is sacred―but so what? It has all turned profane now.
But still, the rain is holy; and I run underneath the dark sun, disemboweling myself as I move under the green and red skies. It’s what Uranus wants.
Trees without leaves amidst the shining tors, like Lear gone further I renovate myself for the land, without a gut.
Lucy has climbed onto my back. Bound for Rome’s shadow . . .
I realize I am screaming, and Lucy is making a huffing sound, like a horse trainer, urging me forward, as I trail intestines behind.
“I have to put you down, Lucy,” I tell her. I put her on the earth and then keep running, my hand in hers, my body filled with terrible electricity.
“Are you in pain, Lucy?”
She just smiles her mad smile and holds my hand tighter as I raise my eyes to the sky and the last of my guts fall out onto the savannah for the beasts to eat; I’m hollow now, but for my heart. It beats without blood, and its beating fills my eyes and my brain with energy; they have never turned faster.
Over us the buildings are returning, as a shadowy mountain reappears after a rain, shining above us, like ancestors, unhappy with the course our evolution has taken.
I feel so alive in death; what does it mean? Is life a quantity to be measured out?
“Where are we going, Lucy?”
“To see Mr. Hu.”
Suddenly she is lightning, running over the grass like a motorcycle, and I find I can go faster too, though not as fast as she.
Overhead the buildings cluster tighter, organic arches clasping some fast nave, cavelike arms dripping water colder than ice onto my face; a city so beautiful I dare not describe it because I will do it injustice, but I know I must try.
Like coming under a mushroom network, breathing in rich spores and watching the fibrous tendrils pulse light along their dendrites, electrical networked minds achieving unknowable designs, I stumble under the concrete sky, amazed.
She’s bouncing now, leaping, like a frog, her youth a rocket fuel. I stop; I can go no further.
“Listen for his voice!” calls Lucy, as she disappears around a building.
It feels a little like Seattle; I spent a week there once at a shoe convention. A dream Seattle without people, through which this sweet mist threads, lights sparkling as they did in the tunnels, but too distant to be seen clearly.
The mist covers my face and makes me smile. I feel light without my gut; ethereal, but still grounded, like after meditation, or vigorous exercise . . . I realize how far I’ve come.
Is this only another torture?
“Lucy!” I cry into the mist of downtown. I hear my echo.
I lean against a building, catching my breath. Inside there’s a deserted cafe, covered in dust. I can feel the building begin to vibrate, a rhythmic pulse.
At first it just feels like a garbage truck passing, a diesel thrumming on the edges of perception, but it doesn’t have an engine’s rhythm; it’s a drum.
Bum bum. Bum bum.
Through the mist I see the face of Mr. Hu, smiling, a balloon. A Thanksgiving Day float, Macy’s Day Parade, no flowers but just his head, moving serenely through the mist, and the buildings thrum, thrum, thrum, and the huge plastic head turns to wink at me, and I feel the urge to follow, but I remember Lucy’s words―listen for his voice―and so I wait.
Is this you, Carl?
Right on the edge of hearing. The edge of thought.
Are you receiving?
“I’m here, Mr. Hu. In some city in a mist, like Seattle.”
They’ve taken Lucy. They’ve offered her a promotion.
“Where is she?”
Follow the sound of my voice.
His tenor voice, a low melancholic hum, murmurs ahead of me, and I smash the cafe window with my hand and wipe the blood on my shirt, step into the cafe through the dust-filled room to the back. Towards the stairs. I hear Mr. Hu’s hum ahead, closer.
I climb the stairs. Now it is as though there are two Mr. Hus, the one humming, sad and far ahead, but growing closer, and another Mr. Hu, just inside my head, a few centimeters behind my eyes, murmuring to me the history of Chinese restaurants:
We began in San Francisco with the Gold Rush, but this is like saying the universe began with Adam and Eve, or with God hovering over the face of the waters, or when the bear shat us into space, an arbitrary position, no, ― we began in the mind. The Chinese Restaurant has the structure of the mind: without, the wandering souls, lost in the mystery of the universe, then within the front gate, color and light and water and music, then the stairs, leading upward, towards the smell of food, the kitchens yet hidden, the greeter and the thousand tables, your peers in the afterlife ...
I climb the stairs faster and faster, realizing how much easier it is without any guts, passing a hundred portraits of Mr. Hu, all different but near-identical, a shadow of different expressions winking behind his eyes as I pass them, turning tighter in the spiral. He whispers inside my head:
Ma Po Tofu is my favorite, named for the leprous crone, bean curd, chili, pork, water chestnuts, onions, wood ear fungus. The face of the leprous woman is beautiful and strange, its combination of despair and joy central to the pan-ethnic identity of Sichuan province. Its terror, and its taste, transforms the eater into a vessel for information, a messenger of taste, as you are being transformed, Carl, into my final weapon ...
Above, the second Mr. Hu hummed louder now, an elegy, for a forgotten father or unknown soldier, to the world passing away―
A restaurant is the most powerful weapon known to―
The transmission was cut off, like an 8-track eaten by an omnivorous Chevrolet. My mind is silent. The mists of dream Seattle move in to the stairwell, and it is as though the building does not exist, merely the stairs, going nowhere, up, forever.
“Where is she, Mr. Hu?” I say aloud.
Lucy is very special, Carl. She’s needed here. But you can return to your life. Remember her. Be with her, in your dreams.
“NO!” I shout, and climb faster, flying through the mist, slipping on the steps as they moisten, clinging to the handrail and throwing myself around the spiral, upwards, faster, faster.
At last I reach the door to the roof and kick it open, splintering the lock. I am stronger than I have ever been, and I have almost no control at all.
It occurs to me that I hardly know Lucy. But how well can you ever know anyone?
It’s just a roof: tar paper, gravel, a smokestack for the boiler, an air conditioning unit, an antenna.
Ahead the other buildings hover in the mist.
When I was a boy I lay on a beach of stones, my parents further down the strand, leaving me to play alone, covered in mist. The stones had known how lonely I was; perhaps I left something of me with them.
I walk to the edge of the roof and look down.
Far below I see the office, and the flaming messengers flying between buildings. I see more office workers in their thousands, shuffling between their desks, typing on their typewriters and murmuring to the smoky faces of their AIs.
I see the Sedgewick victims, a long line stretching for infinity, awaiting their final surgery, coursing like Ouroborous down deep into the crust of this not-Earth, awaiting a not-day when they will at last achieve their liberation, while I and my fellow bureaucrats stem the tide of their need, thwart every last dream we can get our hands on.
Far below it all, I see the sun. The real sun. The sun of Earth. Like Chicago’s, only purer, and warmer, and more forgiving.
I throw myself from the edge.
Mr. Hu’s dance, if that is what it is, pulses through the city all the way down, coursing through the windows and behind the cement and through the air, electric waves of unheard sound, but felt, inside my medulla, inside my bloodless heart.
A fall from grace. A fall from the tower. A fall to Earth. Fallout. To fall is to know you’re mortal, to see death smiling at you, an over-eager friend, ready to embrace you so tight you will be unable to breathe.
A fall into the abyss. Abyss means, literally, ‘without bottom.’ In the deep, every sense is magnified and none is understood.
You never had a daughter, Carl.
It’s Mr. Hu’s voice, but it’s like my father’s.
No Carl. I’m sorry.
I close my eyes, but this makes the falling worse, without knowing where I am or where I will hit, where I will end up. I force them open again.
I killed you Carl.
I remember now his face. The real Mr. Hu. I had sold him a pair of shoes. His dark eyes and his worn bowler. His tight smile as I looked back, falling onto the tracks ...
Suddenly I see Graisely’s face, projected below. I’m falling right into his mouth, and he’s saying:
I’m sitting in the white room again, before the committee.
“Your clothing will be repossessed, Carl. For your transgressions, and for your continued education. Your toe and fingernails will be removed, and your AI reassigned. Your hair will be shaved, and your teeth taken out. You will be given false teeth, with radio transmitters. Your gut will be replaced with our new model INTELLIGENT GUTS, to assist in our outsourced organic thinking processes; you will be responsible for maintaining these guts’ health, but will receive no benefit yourself. You will not eat. Or shit.
“Your eyes will be removed, and will be stuffed as a memento, though we have a great many of these by now and so I will likely just keep them in my drawer.”
The committee chair winked horridly at this, before returning to read my sentence.
“You will stand in your cell without air or food or light for 500 days. During this time you will be responsible for exercising your body to keep your INTELLIGENT GUT active. For this purpose an exercise bar will be attached above your head. You may leap up, and catch it, and pull yourself up, and down again. You will be unable to sit.
“After 250 days you will be reassessed, to determine your degree of compliance with our program. All of this, needless to say, is for your own good. Now Mrs. Shoebanks has something to say about your spiritual development.”
Beside the committee chair Mrs. Shoebanks raised her eyes to me, and it was clear to me that she was one of the masters of this place; that this madwoman had stumbled into the heart of it all and, beyond reason, not been afraid, finding its horror matched the horror she kept stoked within. Her fiery eyes curled into my own. She spoke . . .
She snaps her fingers, summoning a robotic wheelchair. It hums and waits for me to sit in it. Slowly, I do. Then Lucy turns off automatic mode and steps behind me. She pushes me down the long, deserted prison block.
“Am I alive?” I ask.
“Where are we?”
“What year is it?”
“Who are you?”
“You know me. I’m Lucy.”
“What did I do?”
She wheels me out into the light, and I’m crying.
I work in a halfway house. It’s not an easy job. It’s not unlike being a shoe salesman; every foot is unique, and they all need shoes.
The recently arrived and the newly undead. The forgotten ones, like me.
Sometimes Lucy and I have coffee. She’s a real looker now. I tell her I want to adopt her, but she says she’s fine being alone, doesn’t want anyone to worry about her, except the corporation. The corporation’s worry is just a statistical algorithm, so she’s comfortable letting it down. But she doesn’t want to let me down.
I feel like I’m a thousand years old.
“Why did Mr. Hu kill me, Lucy?”
“He was a fucking psychopath.” She’s smoking now; somehow the habit suits her, but I don’t tell her that.
“Is he alive in this time?”
“Yes. He’s an old man now. Do you want to see him?”
I say nothing. The robots of Salinas whir distantly, soothingly, over the strawberry fields. All that beautiful love and will in Cesar Chavez; but even he couldn’t stop the robots.
When I was a boy my father loved me. He took me on long walks, and told me about shoes, and their history. Told me that every shoe is different, like a person’s face.
The Chinese restaurant is empty; I assume Mr. Hu owns it, or perhaps he rented it for the afternoon. We sip hot yellow tea from small, chipped cups.
“The oligarchies of human experience resemble the oligarchies of governments, Carl,” Mr. Hu is saying. “Reality is not a consensual hallucination but one enforced from the top down, which does not mean there is not negotiation or disagreement. There is. You’re a free man now, Carl, you can get on the Board of Supervisors, help determine what the people need. What the structure of human experience should become.”
I watch his face, so full of need. So desperate for understanding. For love.
“I’m happy where I am, Mr. Hu. I’m needed. I can help these people. They’re confused, like me.”
“You could be so much more, Carl.”
“It’s not for me.”
“Say you’ll think about it.”
“Why did you kill me, Mr. Hu?”
“Just to do it, Carl. You looked like a man who needed pushing.”
Some days I know I have been chosen for a great adventure, that whatever this terrible wisdom is that’s been granted me must be shared, that I must translate its mysticism into terms people can relate to, understand.
Other days I long for hell, for the simplicity of that kind of suffering, where escape is all you need to think of, all you can imagine.
I no longer wear shoes. I sweep the floors twice a day, to keep out dust, and dirt. My bare feet stick to the linoleum, like California light sticks to my eyeballs.